The film opens at the Russian modeling audition where Nadya is discovered, picked out of a seemingly endless lineup of almost identical pale, bird-limbed preteens. Nadya gives different numbers for her age depending on what the agents want to hear. In fact, she is just 13. “They like them young,” Arbaugh notes of the Asian fashion market. “Really, really young.” Nadya comes from a grim village, and her family doesn’t have much money. Nadya’s family and entire town see her modeling opportunity as a great boon, and they honor her with ceremonies, parties, and a bittersweet send-off. But once she lands in Tokyo, the fantasy abruptly shatters. She’s dropped in the largest city in the world with no guide and no translator. She speaks neither Japanese nor English, the language most often employed by the international fashion industry. Eventually, she finds her way to the agency-rented apartment, a closet-sized hovel she shares with another teenage model. She has no contacts, no cash, and no way to communicate. Though Nadya is tall and lovely, she is clearly a child. Desperate and helpless, she even pleads with the filmmakers to help her; one of them eventually provides her with a working phone, on which she sobs to her mother and begs to come home, like a terrified child at summer camp. The conditions are so bad that her flat-mate purposely eats until she gains two centimeters around her hips, violating her contract and getting sent home early. The cold, robotic feel of digital video adds to the grimness of Nadya’s circumstances, both in Siberia and the alienating urban efficiency of Tokyo. The merciless lighting and clinical cinematography make Nadya and the other models look like waxen figurines, all blue veins and skin shining tight over skeletons.
The jobs Nadya’s agency promised are in truth only auditions, and only one of them pans out to an actual photo session. Nadya’s contract sounds like something out of the old Hollywood studio system, or a major-label record deal. The company invests an enormous amount of money up front for scouting, travel, lodging, auditions, and even the shoots themselves, which the model must pay back, plus interest, from her pittance earnings before she gets to keep a dime. Intertitles reveal that Nadya left Tokyo not with the financial blessings her family hoped for, but with thousands of dollars of debt and exactly one addition to her portfolio to show for it. At one point, the filmmakers try to corner the Japanese representative of Nadya’s agency, asking how, exactly, they can run a business that drags hundreds of Russian girls to Japan and back with almost no product to show for it. The agent gives a vague non-answer about girls willing to do anything to get photos for their “books.” Clearly, the truth is that these modeling agencies are little more than extortion machines. No body-image horror, no sexual favors, no drugs; just the simple and terribly common transfer of money from the less powerful to the more powerful.
Exposing this corruption would be fodder enough for a documentary even if the agency and the fashion industry were faceless monsters. Instead, Redmon and Sabin have Ashley Arbaugh. At the beginning of the film, Arbaugh comes across as thoughtful and conflicted. She seems to cringe at the objectification her job requires, yet also captivated by the beauty of the girls she finds. Never once does she seem completely comfortable with her task. When we get glimpses of a video diary Arbaugh kept when she herself modeled in Asia, we can see why. Exhausted, bloodless, defeated, sometimes weeping, she expresses an alienation and hopelessness that perfectly echoes Nadya’s current feelings. If anything, Arbaugh in flashback is even more sympathetic, because she was older than Nadya and better able to express herself. Why, then, does Arbaugh continue to work as a scout? Is she another victim, older and slightly more wary, but still at the mercy of the machine?